Sunday, December 8, 2013

Escalation and 40K Formations

Just over a week ago I jotted down some preliminary thoughts on Escalation. Now that people are finally getting their copies, we have a little bit more information. My biggest question has finally been answered, and it wasn't the answer I was hoping for.

Army Detachments and Lords of War
As is obvious to regular readers of this blog, I play an Ultramarine army. Although the Space Marines don't generally have direct access to Baneblade or Shadowsword variants, Super-Heavy tanks operated by the Imperial Guard or a PDF often accompany the Astartes into battle. In the story of the Battle of Macragge, we're told that the Ultramar Auxilia had a Baneblade called the Pride of Hera that was eventually destroyed by a Carnifex brood.

Although the Baneblade and Shadowsword variants are Imperial Guard Super-Heavy tanks, I had hoped that Astartes armies would be allowed to bring one as their Lord of War choice. Barring that, I had assumed that I would be able to bring an Imperial Guard Allied Detachment (which I would depict as the Ultramar Auxilia) that would supply the Lord of War. Unfortunately, the word is now out that a Lord of War can only be provided by the Primary Detachment.

Before this month, I wouldn't have been surprised by how strict Escalation is. For the sake of balance, it would have made perfect sense to me that only the Primary Detachment would be allowed to supply the Lord of War, although I still would have been disappointed that my Ultramarines would only have access to a prohibitively expensive model. However, it's hard to explain the relative conservatism of Escalation in light of the no-holds-barred nature of the recently introduced 40K Formations.

40K Formations
For those who are unfamiliar with the new 40K Formations, the idea is that, in addition to the Primary Detachment and any Allied Detachment, an army can also take along an additional detachment composed of a specific group of units. This Formation interacts with the Primary Detachment according to allies rules (e.g., a Space Marine detachment would treat a Tau Formation as Battle Brothers) but it is otherwise unaffected by normal Force Organization rules.

One word: "Broken"
Our Cabal is pretty open-minded, but Formations immediately worried us. The concern lay in the fact that they completely bypass the Force Organization of an Allied Detachment. The only thing that had previously limited allies was the fact that you were required to bring an HQ and at least one Troop. Once you had paid this "price of admission", you were limited to selecting a single unit from each of the remaining slots. This forced the player to make some hard choices about what tradeoffs he was willing to make and prevented him from loading up on only the best units from another army.

However, Formations eliminate most of the drawbacks deliberately designed into the allies rules. The first Formation revealed, Tau Firebase Support Cadre, consists of a Riptide Battlesuit and six Broadsides. It doesn't require a player to sink points into an HQ or Troops that he doesn't necessarily want. Instead, as long as he has the points and the relatively liberal Allies Matrix allows it, he can add a very powerful Elite choice and two Heavy Support choices to his Primary Detachment. Unless an opponent has brought some Formations of his own, it could be a very uneven and unenjoyable game for him.

I appreciate that GW wants to open up their rules for those who want more options (they seem to be producing a small-scale form of Apocalypse), and I'm sure that there are plenty of players who will have a lot of fun using Formations, but the Cabal has made a gentleman's agreement not to use them just to keep our games friendly.

Back to Escalation
As I was saying, the philosophy behind the Escalation rules and the concept of Formations seem to be at odds. In a game where my Ultramarines can take a Firebase Support Cadre free of any of the usual limitations that come with an Allied Detachment, why can't Marines with Imperial Guard allies bring a Baneblade? Not only is this inconsistent from a gaming perspective, but it's entirely contrary to the fluff.

I was really hoping to bring this in an allied force

I have two theories on why GW might have decided to go this way. My first is that the writers of Escalation and the writers of the Formation rules weren't quite on the same page. I assume that the authors of the former actually wanted to limit Allied shenanigans (e.g., no Tau Primary Detachment accompanied by a minimal Eldar force and their Revenant Titan). It's also possible that they wanted to increase the diversity of units on the tabletop. Given how inexpensive Baneblades and Shadowswords are (both monetarily and points-wise) and since IG can ally with just about everyone, a huge number of Escalation games could easily end up with both sides bringing some form of Baneblade.

My second theory has to do with business. Obviously, the primary intent of both Formations and Escalation is to make money. I'm sure that the rules writers and model designers also want us to enjoy the game, but at the end of the day they like to eat and have a roof over their heads, too. I previously suggested that the point of introducing Super-Heavies into regular games of 40K was to increase the demand for large plastic models. I think that the restrictions of Escalation support this idea and may indicate the imminent release of additional models.

With its high points value, the
Revenant Titan is bargain
If I worked at GW and were asked to increase demand for large plastic models, I think I would come up with something like Escalation. Not everyone has the time or the money to play huge Apocalypse games, so I would introduce Super-Heavies into the regular game. And what if the company was interested in releasing plastic versions of existing resin models, but didn't want to proceed until they were certain that there would be sufficient demand? Since many of those who play an army without its own plastic Super-Heavy (e.g., Space Marines, Tau, Eldar) would simply bring an IG allied force with a Super-Heavy tank if given the option (and might even be reluctant to buy their faction-specific Super-Heavy when it was finally released), I would require that the Lord of War be specific to the Primary Detachment.

Escalation and the Legendary Plastic Thunderhawk
To be able to compete in Escalation, some players might end up buying a resin Super-Heavy from Forge World. Fortunately, the new supplement limits armies to bringing only the "smallest" Super-Heavies. At the current exchange rate, the Tau Tiger Shark is $244, the Eldar Revenant Titan is $319, and the Tyranid Harridan is $384. These prices are much higher than the $160 GW charges for a Khorne Lord of Skulls or a Necron Tesseract Vault, but I can actually see many serious gamers saving up for them.

After looking over a few of my 2000 point lists, I've calculated that the total monetary value of the models in each list is around $650. That means that the price of most Escalation-legal Forge World models is about half that of a 2000 point Space Marine army. (And who owns only 2000 points, anyway?) At $319, the 900 point Revenant Titan turns out to be a pretty good value. It costs about 50% as much as a 2000 point army while its addition to that army would increase its total points value by 45%.

Where we really run into a problem is with the Lord of War for GW's most popular faction; i.e., Space Marines in their various incarnations. The Thunderhawk is worth 685 points and can reach a value of 775 points with the Turbo-laser destructor upgrade. The model, while admittedly much larger than many other Super-Heavy models, currently sells for over $650. That's more than twice as much as a Revenant Titan and four times as much as GW's most expensive plastic model. An upgraded Thunderhawk would cost as much as an entire 2000 point army but add only 39% to the points value of the army. In other words, Escalation limits players of GW's most popular armies to the resin-only model with the least bang for their buck.

When it comes to 40K I'm pretty stupid with money, but even I can't justify a $650 price tag for a single 775 point resin model.

Why would GW limit C:SM players to the Thunderhawk?

I think the primary reason why GW limited thousands of Space Marine players to fielding the prohibitively expensive Thunderhawk is because it won't be that expensive for much longer. My theory is that Escalation and its restriction against Space Marines taking an IG Super-Heavy in an Allied Detachment will have finally created the demand GW wanted/needed to justify making their largest plastic kit ever (which will still be smaller than some of the model airplanes I put together as a kid). I wouldn't be surprised if we saw the mythical plastic Thunderhawk by the first anniversary of Escalation.

What Do We Do Until Then?
I predict that many Astartes fans who want to participate in games using the Escalation supplement will choose to field a single Guard Command Squad and two squads of Veterans as their Primary Detachment just so they can play with a cheap Super-Heavy tank. Their preferred army will be represented by a maxed-out Allied Detachment. In fact, about a week ago I made a theoretical 2500 point IG list that included a Super-Heavy tank and Ultramarine allies just in case the Lord of War was restricted to the Primary. Even with a Baneblade or a Shadowsword, the minimized IG Primary Detachment only took up about 35% of the total points value.

Bryce has already offered to buy my Baneblade and Shadowsword models for his own Steel Legion. If I knew for certain that a plastic Thunderhawk were on its way, I would strongly consider it. Right now, though, I'm actually rather fond of the Guard Super-Heavies and will probably end up buying a minimal Guard army just so I can use them.
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